Poetry Sunday: “One to Watch, and One to Pray,” by Camille Dungy

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this week’s poem, “One to Watch, and One to Pray,” by Camille Dungy, since I first read it a few years ago in Virginia Quarterly Review. One thing to notice about this poem is that it consists of one long complete sentence, and so mimics the seamless back-and-forth motion of items, including a baby, being passed back and forth across a hospital or hospice bed. Another thing to notice is the way Dungy sets up dichotomies of grandmother/grandchild and death/new birth, then reinforces them through action in the poem. The baby is in almost constant motion, while the grandmother lies still. The baby clamors for milk, while the grandmother waits for a swab to be passed over her lips. The main strategy at work in this poem, though, is repetition of words and phrases, like the unforgettable “we passed the baby over the bed.”

I love repetition in poems, the subject for the third-semester essay I wrote while I was in Warren Wilson’s MFA program. If the origin of poetry is in song, then the origin of both poetry and song is in repetition. “We are pattern-discerning animals,” Robert Hass says, and the urge to make and find pattern is ancient and as primal as heartbeat and breath. Fundamental to all language, repetition figures in every kind of human expression, from the sequence of steps in a grand ballet to the notes in a musical composition to the alternation of texture and color in an oriental rug. In writing, repetition has enormous potential both as a constant against which to unspool the vagaries of human expression and also as a fruitful source of expansion and deepening of that expression.

In Dungy’s poem, the phrase “We passed the baby over the bed” is repeated four times, and then, as with an extemporaneous jazz composition, the pattern repeats with variation. References to other kinds of passing, such as of “water” and “cards,” remind us of the more fundamental passing being experienced by the woman on her deathbed. The word “baby” is repeated eight times, converting a poem about the death of a women into a poem that fundamentally affirms life. Preachers and politicians use repetition to harness the attention and allegiance of their audiences, and so do poets. Try listening to Dungy reading this poem aloud (see link below), and pay attention to the effect of its repetitions. When done with skill, as here, there is no more powerful device for hooking in the readers’ bodies and hearts, as well as their minds.  

—Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


One to Watch, and One to Pray

We passed the baby over the bed, and later we passed tissue,
            and her Bible with its onion skin pages, its highlighted lessons
and dog-eared parables she kept handy with bookmarks
            whose tassels hung and swayed as her hair
might have done when she was very sweet and very young,
            and when we had finished what reading we would read,
we stopped a little while to register the pleasant song
            the woman on the stereo was singing, and then the baby
cried for milk, and so we passed her back across the bed,
            which is when someone asked if there was any more water
and we passed the water over her lips with the swab the nurses gave us
            just for this, a square pink bubblegum lollipop looking deal
like the treats she used to give us when we were very sweet
            and very young, and someone came with roses,
and though we smelled the flowers because we hoped for something better
            than the smell that lingered all around us, hothouse flowers
look alive long after their lively smells have faded, so when someone came in
            with cards, we passed the cards and flowers over the bed and stood them up
with the other cards and flowers on the little stand of white plastic and chrome
            that passed for a bedside table in that place, and when a friend came in
who hadn’t met the baby, we passed the baby over the bed
            and the friend said, she’s so sweet, and when a cousin came
who knew things few of us knew, we listened to stories
            from when both of them were very young, and when someone cried
we passed the tissue over the bed, and when someone said, she’s so small now,
            we remembered the pink square bubblegum lollipop swab,
and when the nurse said, you can tell by how she breathes,
            someone got the Bible from the little chrome and plastic stand,
and when someone said, it’s okay to leave, we didn’t want to
            do a thing, and though several days later someone told me
people somewhere in West Africa pass a baby over the bed
            of a dying person to say there will always be new bodies
to celebrate and mourn, that night we only knew the baby needed a change
            and someone had to take her, and so we passed the baby
over the bed and decided who would stay to watch her go.

First published in the Virginia Quarterly Review and reprinted by permission of the poet.


Photo: WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson.Camille T. Dungy is the author of Smith Blue, Suck on the Marrow, and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison. She edited Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry, and co-edited the From the Fishouse poetry anthology. Her honors include an American Book Award, two Northern California Book Awards, a California Book Award silver medal, and a fellowship from the NEA. Dungy is currently a professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Click here to listen to Camille Dungy reading her poems. (Audio Link to poem provided by From The Fishouse)


Photo Credit: WideVision Photography/Marcia Wilson.

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  • Risa Denenberg June 1, 2015 at 11:34 am

    I think this is one of the most beautiful poem I’ve ever read. Gorgeous and so true. So true. What can I say except thank you.

  • Trinjia Dell'Aglio May 24, 2015 at 1:49 pm

    Absolutely beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Mickey May 24, 2015 at 12:34 pm

    Thank you, Camille Dungy. I’m crying with joy and sorrow. Sorrow at someone’s passing and joy that her family sat with her so she wouldn’t be alone in her final hours in this form. Thank you so much.